HAWTHORN coach Sam Mitchell was pleased to see further growth in his young players, notably Josh Ward, in Sunday's win over West Coast.
Ward had a career-high 34 disposals, including six clearances and eight score involvements, as Luke Breust kicked six goals in the Hawks' 25-point victory.
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Pick No.7 in the 2021 NAB AFL Draft, Ward has shown excellent signs in his first season, and produced his best performance yet at the MCG.
Mitchell was thrilled for the midfielder and defender James Blanck, who was pick No.20 in this year's NAB AFL Mid-Season Rookie Draft and held Josh Kennedy to two goals.
"Really happy for Wardy. He's done a lot of work and it hasn't quite clicked for him," he told reporters.
"We knew with the talent level that he has that that was coming, it was just about trying to give him the opportunity to play in that way. I'm really, really glad that he was able have that performance today. I think some of our growth in some of our younger players was really strong.
"I thought James Blanck playing as a key defender on, Josh Kennedy is one of the greatest forwards of all-time, to be able to play on a guy like that, he would've learnt an enormous amount. He got outpointed a couple of times, but he held his own for the most part.
"I thought those two were really, really promising to leave the game knowing that they both did their jobs."
As Ward, Tom Mitchell (33 disposals) and Jai Newcombe (28) led the midfield, Breust booted an equal career-high six goals.
The 31-year-old has kicked 34 goals this year and Mitchell talked up the forward's importance to his young side.
"He was a bit frustrated, I think he's kicked six four times so he was really looking to try and get one more. It shows you the importance of senior players and guys who can lead the way," Mitchell said.
"He was in so many dangerous one-on-one situations that if he loses those, we're actually quite vulnerable, but he wins his contests.
"When he started, he was a skinny kid that wore a mouthguard to the time trial. Now he's in a position where he's an elite tackler, his front-half pressure is enormous, but he can also finish and win his contests. He sets a great example for some of our younger players who are playing similar roles – Connor Macdonald, Will Day as two examples, Sam Butler, who is out sore at the moment, but those guys are all learning an enormous amount from Luke Breust."
The Eagles were left to rue a second quarter in which the Hawks kicked seven goals, with Hawthorn responding to every challenge West Coast then threw at it.
Hit by illness and injury this year, the Eagles used a 47th player in 2022 as Jai Culley – the top pick in this year's NAB AFL Mid-Season Rookie Draft – made his debut.
Culley had 12 disposals, a game-high 11 tackles and an equal game-high seven clearances.
"He looks like he's up for the fight, which is great," Eagles coach Adam Simpson said.
"What did he have? 12 tackles and five or six clearances. You'd take that for a first game so that's one of many that we've explored this year and we'll keep exploring and there'll be some things there that need to be worked on.
"But it's a good opportunity to play a game, MCG, and he'll remember that forever."
West Coast lost Callum Jamieson to an adductor injury in the final term, while Tim Kelly suffered a corked quad but played out the game.